Looking through history, especially the history of thought, you often come across pronouncements of profound limitations. Only for a paradigm shift to leave these notions in the dust.
The “Malthusian Trap” may be the best example of this. It shows how easy it is to get caught in modern paradigms, extrapolating only from what is currently possible or emphasised.
But are these limits always transitory, or can they actually be more fundamental?
I’ve been wondering this after a recent interview where Vaclav Smil posits that we are on the cusp of the limits of energy efficiency:
If you look at the fundamentals of human existence, the yield of crops, the energy which we save by making materials, the energy we save by making better converters, no matter if it’s turbines, or cars, all these things which run our economy are basically improving at a rate of one, or two, or at best about 3 percent a year…
It’s actually becoming more and more difficult to wring out even those 3 percent, because there are many things here. We are approaching thermodynamic or straight pneumatic limits with many of these things. This idea of dematerialization, decreasing the energy intensity — fine, you can keep doing it, but you cannot do it forever. If I built a house, I can make it lighter, but I will still need some steel, some lumber, some tiles, some glass. I cannot make it not using material. This is another kind of false god — dematerialization and decrease of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is helpful, it’s happening all the time, but it has its own thermodynamic and material limits.
Can we simply innovate our way past continued consumption growth and trust compounding efficiency to make up the difference? Or are we up against something more fundamental?